Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Hole's Too Deep! Keep Digging!

There has been a lot of rhetoric from both sides of the Australian Web Filter debate, and I can see from reading comments on stories like this one that a lot of people have bought in to many of the untruths out there. So here are some truths ("truthiness" being determined by my own views and opinions), carefully referenced to sources, so you don't just have to trust me blindly. 

 A Problem of Scale
The internet is a big place. Most people don't understand just how big it really is: back in 2008, the Official Google Blog put the number of pages on the web at over a trillion unique pages. Even back then, that number was growing by several billion pages per day. Microsoft agrees, and goes on to add that "An average person would need six hundred thousand decades of nonstop reading to read through the information." A domain registry statistics page tells me there are 117 million individual domains registered across the non-country-specific top level domains like .com and .net, and that number is growing by ten thousand a day. It gets worse when we find out that search engines like Google and Bing are indexing only a small part of the Internet. There are a multitude of sites which are a part of the Deep Web, out of view of the search engines (as long ago as 2000, estimated to contain 550 billion individual documents). On top of that, there are the red light districts of the internet: the Darknets. These are little enclaves of mini-internets, still connected but heavily encrypted and anonymized. Networks like Freenet provide much better anonymity than the general internet, are highly searchable and easy to access, and openly admit that they contain material like terrorist content and child pornography. GNUNet provides a similar network, aimed squarely at preventing censorship. On top of all of that comes email (53.8 trillion spam messages in 2008), Usenet (tens of thousands of active discussion boards carrying tens of millions of messages on any given day), and peer-to-peer file sharing (which carries more traffic than the rest of the internet put together).

In contrast to the internet, the Australian web blacklist will be a very small place. Senator Conroy stated that on November 30, 2008, the blacklist contained 1370 URLs. Of those URLs, only 864 related to content which is or would be Refused Classification. The government has announced plans to expand the blacklist to include 10,000 sites or more. You will note that this is fewer, in total, than the number of new domains being registered per day. Given Google's 2008 estimate of over 1 trillion unique URLs on the internet, even if the blacklist expanded to 100,000 URLs, it would represent 0.00001% of the world-wide web. Late last year, Senator Conroy dismissed rumours that there were any plans to filter peer-to-peer networks, even though peer-to-peer networks generate more traffic than the world-wide web, and a non-trivial amount of this traffic is related to illegal pornography. Other known (and, as mentioned before, admitted) havens for illegal material are both easily accessible and designed to circumvent government internet filters. In fact, international organisation Reporters Without Borders publishes a handbook teaching non-technical people how to circumvent internet filters. The techniques used in this handbook are focused on working safely on the internet in oppressive countries which may invoke the death penalty for the work some journalists are involved in, and the techniques taught are more than up to dealing with a simple filter like Senator Conroy is planning. Filter circumvention isn't just happening at the browser end, either: the Australian Federal Police claim that URLs for illegal sites can change within hours, and are difficult to identify or track.

Ultimately, the filter is going to do very little to prevent people from accessing illegal material. There is far too much of it out there to block even a tiny portion of it. The parts of the internet where this material is most easily accessible are not affected at all by the filter, and on the rare occasion that a user does attempt to access a blocked web page, it will be trivial to find alternate ways to access it. 

Visibility and the International Community

Senator Conroy has argued that it would be irresponsible to publish the blacklist, because that would be tantamount to providing access to the blacklisted materials. This is a very valid point: anyone with a copy of the blacklist would have a shopping-list of illegal websites. Given that there are a variety of ways to circumvent the filter, anyone in Australia would be able to browse through these illegal sites. Unfortunately, it has already proven difficult to keep the list secure: the blacklist was leaked last year. Some people have made a big deal of the fact that there were numerous sites on the list which should not be blocked, however we need to remember that this was a trial blacklist, and not subject to the same kind of scrutiny that the final one will (hopefully) be. The fact that it leaked at all should be of larger concern: when this thing goes live, there will be a lot more people (notably, staff at ISPs all over the country) with potential access to this list, and it would be naive to think that it won't ever be leaked. And a leaked blacklist remains "the concerned parent's worst nightmare".

Perhaps unremarkably, the proposed filter has faced widespread condemnation in the western world. The US State Department has expressed their concern, and Google is concerned both about the current scope of blocking, and the risk of it expanding outside its mandate. Yahoo go on to list types of RC content which should not be blocked, but will be covered by the RC category which the filter is supposed to block. Reporters Without Borders has written an open letter to the Prime Minister expressing concerns for the risk to the freedom of Australian people. 

But What's Really Wrong?

Let's not take their word for it. There are arguments both ways here, and I don't just want you to know why the blacklist won't work: I want you to know why it's Bad. The goal of the filter is to prevent access of RC material from within Australia. Senator Conroy wants it made clear that this includes material such as bestiality, child abuse imagery, and terrorism advocacy. What he's not so keen to point out is that RC material is a broad category within Australia, and includes a wide range of material which it is not illegal to possess in Australia. Current content guidelines mean that RC material includes:
A study focused on these issues identified some examples of material which would be covered by the RC category (the following list is a direct quote):
  • A site devoted to debating the merits of euthanasia in which some participants exchanged information about actual euthanasia practices.
  • A site set up by a community organisation to promote harm minimisation in recreational drug use.
  • A site designed to give a safe space for young gay and lesbians to meet and discuss their sexuality in which some members of the community narrated explicit sexual experiences.
  • A site that included dialogue and excerpts from literary classic such as Nabokov’s Lolita or sociological studies into sexual experiences, such as Dr Alfred Kinsey’s famous Adult Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male.
  • A site devoted to discussing the geo-political causes of terrorism that published material outlining the views of terrorist organisations as reference material.
As you can see, the RC classification is broad enough to include a wide range of subjects which are of benefit to the public interest. It also includes material which is not beneficial to the public interest, but which is of legitimate interest to individuals and which the public has no interest in preventing adults from accessing. It would be nice to find a way to prevent people under 18 from accessing some of these materials, and to prevent people under 15 from accessing rather more of these materials. Senator Conroy's solution is to implement a mandatory filter which will prevent any of these sorts of materials from being accessed by anyone in Australia via the internet.

One can only imagine that we would end up with legions of "RC Couriers" flying in to the country, presenting their perfectly legal (but filtered from the internet) material for customs to inspect, and then passing it around offline. 

How Many Problems Does It Take To Discredit a Ministerial Plan?

Tongue-in-cheek criticisms aside, I feel I have presented a solid and well-referenced case for the following points:
  • The scale of the blacklist is too small to filter even a small fraction of the genuinely illegal material on the internet.
  • The scope of the blacklist does nothing to filter the parts of the internet which play primary host to the sorts of materials it tries to restrict.
  • When someone wants to access material which is blocked by the blacklist, it will be easy to circumvent the filter.
  • Publishers of the sorts of materials the blacklist tries to restrict already have strategies in place which will prevent the blacklist from restricting access to their content.
  • The existence of the blacklist creates interest in finding out "what is prohibited", and leaked copies of this (or other) blacklists will result in minors seeking out objectionable material which they may not have otherwise looked for.
  • There are a variety of highly respectable authorities which have been critical of the effectiveness of, or even need for, a blacklist.
  • The scope of the blacklist allows for certain types of sites to be filtered out, even though it is in the public interest for them to be accessible.
The Hole's Too Deep! Keep Digging!

It is my considered belief that the only rational reason Senator Conroy could possibly still have for continuing to push for the implementation of his internet filter is the fear of the public realising how much public money he's blown chasing an unworkable, unnecessary, and harmful system of censorship. 

The Real Problem, and What To Do: A Manual for Parents

The argument for the filter runs something like this: Kids have access to the internet. We don't want kids to look at porn. Let's take porn off the internet! As I've already demonstrated, the filter aims to do rather more than that, and will in effect achieve much less. For a start, there are a lot more than 1370 (number of URLs on the blacklist last time they told us) porn sites on the internet. In fact, there are millions, and the blacklist will do nothing to prevent kids from looking at porn! Take a deep breath, there's no need to panic. The blacklist was never there to keep porn out of the hands of kids. It is there to prevent curious people who go hunting for illegal material from finding said illegal material, even though we've established that it won't do that either. But what should we do? Some of this material is stuff we don't want our kids looking at, and we really do want to do something.

Fortunately, there are already a lot of things parents can do to protect their children from being damaged by pictures of naked people having sex (and let's face it, that's what we're worried about.) There are even some really good things we can do to keep them safe from internet predators, online bullies, and the dangers of eating too much sugar!

First of all, as a parent, educate yourself. Yahoo's Online Safety for Children is a great place to start. So is the Australian Government CyberSmart site. If you were a parent trying to teach your child to swim, but you really weren't much good at it yourself, you wouldn't do a good job. Unfortunately, the internet is far too pervasive in today's society to send your kid along to "internet swimming lessons" twice a week: you're going to have to do it yourself, so you're going to have to learn it yourself. Every parent bringing up a child needs to understand the basics of internet safety.

Step two. While your child is young, they do not need an iPhone, a computer in their bedroom, or any other private access to the internet. What they need is the opportunity to learn about this network which drives so much of society in a supervised environment. The lounge-room is a great place for this, with the screen turned so the whole room can see it. The internet is a dangerous place, full of pornography, racism, predators, and all sorts of other bad stuff, and no filter can reliably prevent the curious child from running into some of it. It doesn't hurt to try, however, so install one of the many available content filters (you can find links to them from the Yahoo and CyberSmart sites). These two simple measures will keep your children and young teens relatively safe online. There are other tips: webcams are dangerous. Cameras lead to photos. A browser history full of porn sites from when the parents stay up late is asking for trouble. But if the computer is in the living room, with family members around, the damage is limited.

Society tells us that kids under 18 need to be kept away from all sorts of material which adults are allowed to access. Unfortunately, it also tells us that once kids get to their mid-teenage years, we need to give them laptops, computers in their bedroom, iPhones, and all sorts of other gadgets. Once a teenager gets unsupervised access to these things, they are going to (potentially) be able to get around any filter you or the government can provide. If they can't work it out themselves, someone at school will help them. There's a certain age at which you just aren't going to be able to control what your kids see. DON'T PANIC. For a start, let me remind you that Senator Conroy's blacklist wouldn't have helped anyway: it doesn't even pretend to try. Even now, though, there is something you can do: EDUCATE YOUR CHILD.

It's at least as uncomfortable a talk as the one about the birds and the bees, but let me re-iterate: you will not keep your kid from seeing this stuff. You might luck out, and have a child who doesn't develop an interest until he or she is older. They might never work out how to get around your filter, and get stuck with the more traditional approach of swapping dirty magazines at school. But ultimately, access is out of your control, and you now need to work on attitude. Develop a child who is respectful towards both genders. Teach them ethics and morals, so they aren't influenced by terrorist materials. Teach them that there are predators out there, and develop their self-esteem so they aren't vulnerable to them. In the longer run, the only way to make sure your children aren't damaged by all the bad things on the internet is to make sure they are immune to the damage. 

The Wrap

The internet, much like the real world, is a dangerous place, and there's nothing anyone can (or should) do to change that. Let the police chase the criminals (believe it or not, they can do that on the internet too). Let parents educate their kids. Let adults, by and large, do their own thing, so long as they don't break the law. Let political speech, and discussion of charged issues like euthanasia and drug use, and things like (edgy) art and fiction and sex, and all the other things which give our culture breadth and depth, have their place on the internet.

And for crying out loud, don't give your 12-year-old a computer in his bedroom.

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